DEFRA Sound Waves, Effects of underwater noise on coastal fish and crustaceans behavioural responses in the field.

From October 2009 to August 2013
Project Leader(s): Prof M J Downie, Prof M Bentley, Dr R Perez-Dominguez, Prof A D Hawkins, Dr J Nedwell
Sponsors: DEFRA
Partners: Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Studies, University of Hull, Loughine Ltd, Subacoustech Environmental Limited

Underwater sound is an important feature for marine animals. Several species use sound to communicate for reproduction, feeding and navigation over a wide range of frequencies. Human activities add sounds in the aquatic environment. These activities include recreational and commercial navigation, off-shore exploration and developments and fisheries. Much of the technology contributing to ocean noise is new and in many cases the sounds generated are very different to natural sounds, both in their amplitudes and characteristics.

The SoundWaves Research Consortium has been formed with the specific intention of concentrating recognised UK expertise on the impact of man made underwater noise into a single team.
The consortium aims to understand how individuals and populations respond to changing environments in relation to increasing anthropogenic noise levels.

What is the Problem?

UK’s marine environment provides habitat for a rich marine community.  We have the obligation to ensure its conservation and uses.  Underwater noise in the sea is increasing.  Shipping, offshore construction, dredging, seismic surveying for gas and oil and other activities are leading to higher levels of ambient noise.  The effects of this additional noise upon marine life are poorly understood.  At one extreme, the high level impulsive sounds from pile driving may kill or injure animals.  Other sounds may result in animals leaving a preferred area.  Sustained noise may affect the ability of animals to detect their own calls, or the sounds of predators or prey.  To protect and ensure the continuing presence of a rich diversity of fauna in our territorial seas research is needed on the potentially adverse effects of underwater sound upon marine fauna This project will address this need and help ensure that the ecological status of our seas is not impaired by our noisy activities.

What are the aims of this project?

The overarching aim of this project is to provide an evidence-based tool to forecast effects of anthropogenic noise on marine animals. It will use state-of-the-the-art methods and a range of expertise within a multidisciplinary framework. The project is intended to achieve this aim by meeting the following five objectives:

  • To review marine sound pollution with specific references to noise levels in connection with known effects on marine biota and especially fish and crustaceans.
  • To develop ways of describing more precisely the characteristics of a range of noise polluting activities.
  • To apply underwater observation methods to produce experimental evidence on the response of wild, naive fish to noise exposure sources under natural conditions in the sea.
  • To define those exposure levels which lead to significant biological responses (injury, avoidance behaviour, startle responses).
  • To produce evidence on any significant impacts of underwater noise and how these might be reduced or eliminated.

Which policy areas will the research inform?

Under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive member states are required to develop strategies to achieve good environmental status of marine waters.  This research will assist the UK in developing a strategy for ensuring that the pressure of noise-making activities is kept within levels compatible with the achievement of good environmental status.  The research will also assist in supporting Marine Planning (informing licensing applications) in UK’s territorial seas and estuaries.

What are the results from the project and how will they be used?

The research proposed in this study addresses shortcomings in present knowledge, which will allow DEFRA to make informed decisions in the field of underwater acoustics and effects on marine biota and ecosystems. Specifically the outputs of this programme will generate the experimental data necessary to forecast direct effects on a number of important UK fish species such as herring (Clupea harengus), bib (Trisopterus luscus) or dab (Limanda limanda), and crustaceans including the edible crab (Cancer pagurus) or the European lobster (Homarus gammarus) whose precise sensitivity to anthropogenic underwater noise is the subject of current preliminary investigation. Activities being conducted as part of this project include:

  • Produce a technical review of marine sound pollution with specific reference to noise levels and their known effects on marine biota at the onset of the program.
  • Develop the most appropriate acoustic metrics to summarise a range of noise polluting activities.
  • Undertake a modelling exercise linking the actual hearing abilities of model species with the noise signature of various noise polluting activities to identify and score those activities posing greatest risks; estimating potential thresholds leading to responses and impacts.
  • Develop underwater observation techniques (UWTV, sonar tracking) to produce experimental evidence of the responses of fish and crustaceans by exposing wild animals to controlled noise exposure under real field conditions.
  • Define those exposure levels leading to significant responses and define thresholds for those responses (injury, avoidance behaviour, startle responses), expressed in appropriate acoustic metrics. Forecast effects on fish and shellfish populations.
  • Provide an ecological quality assessment of the impact of noise on marine fish and crustaceans.
  • Produce a technical review summarising any loss of ecosystem functionality and integrity following exposure to underwater noise.

These deliverables will ensure that concern over the impact of underwater noise upon marine life is integrated properly into the different policies, agreements and legislative measures which moderate the effects of our activities upon the marine environment.

Observing the impact of sounds on pelagic fish in the sea by means of sonar

Techniques have been developed for observing the behaviour of schools of fish in mid water by means of echo sounders and side-scan sonar.  Methods have been developed for presenting sounds to the schools, monitoring the sound levels and observing the effects. Observations have been made on daily and seasonal changes in the behaviour of the schools and experiments have begun to examine the effects of sound presentation upon the schools.  Responses of the fish schools to sounds have been variable.  Strong responses to pile driving were observed in one instance, the fish diving and spreading out and the school breaking up (see Figure below).  In other instances there has been no response.  The reasons for these differences are being investigated.


Understanding the Scale and Impacts of Anthropogenic Noise in the Marine Environment. For further details download Reportindex

The principal members of the consortium include:

Prof M J Downie
School of Marine Science and Technology, University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Professor Downie is a hydrodynamicist specialising in offshore engineering applications.

Prof M Bentley
School of Marine Science and Technology, University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Professor Bentley is a marine ecologist with research interests in the control of reproduction of marine invertebrates.

Dr R Perez-Dominguez
Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Studies, University of Hull
Dr R Perez-Dominguez is the senior fish ecologist at the Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Studies (University of Hull) a research and consultancy organisation with expertise on the science and management of estuarine and coastal areas including effects of human activities on estuarine and marine biological systems.

Prof A D Hawkins
Loughine Ltd
Prof A D Hawkins is the author of definitive papers on sound production and hearing in fishes.  He is external advisor to the JIP Sound and Marine Life Programme; member of a working group established by the Acoustical Society of America to develop sound exposure criteria for fish; and co-organiser of the 2007 Nyborg Symposium on the Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life. He is former Director of Fisheries Research for Scotland and former Principal of the North Atlantic Fisheries College, Shetland.

Dr J Nedwell
Subacoustech Environmental Limited
Dr J Nedwell was formerly an Admiralty Lecturer in Underwater Acoustics at the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research at the University of Southampton, currently specialising in research and consultancy in bioacoustics on behalf of a wide range of companies, research organisations and NGOs

PhD students involved in the project:

Ilaria Spiga
PhD student, School of Marine Science and Technology, University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Louise Roberts, PhD student, Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Studies, University of Hull


Professor Martin Downie
Technology in the Marine Environment

  • Telephone: +44 (0) 191 208 6716